Mendez v. Westminster

Gonzalo y Felicitas Mendez Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 60th anniversary of an important school desegregation case. No, it is not Brown v. Board, and the segregated schools in question were not located in the south or midwest.

This legal challenge occurred in California eight years prior to Brown v. Board. The Mendez v. Westminster (1946) case challenged the segregation of white and Mexican students in Westminster, Garden Grove and El Modeno school districts. It was the first time ever that a judge wrote an opinion stating that separate is never equal.

“On March 2, 1945, five Mexican-American fathers, Gonzalo Mendez, Thomas Estrada, William Guzman, Frank Palomino, and Lorenzo Ramirez, challenged the practice of school segregation in the Ninth Federal District Court in Los Angeles. They claimed that their children and 5,000 other children of “Mexican and Latin descent” were victims of unconstitutional discrimination by being forced to attend separate “Mexican” schools in the Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and El Modeno school districts of Orange County.

Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs on February 18, 1946, and more than a year later, on April 14, 1947, McCormick’s ruling was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco. On June 14 of the same year, Governor Earl Warren signed into law a repeal of the last remaining school segregation statutes in the California Education Code. Thus did “separate but equal” end in California schools and with it ended de jure school segregation, legally and administratively enforced separation of racial and national groups in the public education system. Judge McCormick’s decision reflects significant social and intellectual movements which produced a remarkable change in educational and judicial attitudes on matters of segregation and race during the 1930’s and 1940s. The Mendez case is equally important as a part of the history of Mexican and Mexican-American people in the United States and their experience in Anglo-American schools.”


Additionally, the court held that segregating Mexican children in a separate school went against the social equality purpose of public education because it was not open to all. Segregated schooling would retard the English-language skills and learning of Mexican children. The court also spoke to the positive benefits of commingling and suggested that segregation fosters antagonisms and suggests inferiority among the childnre where none exists.

I think it’s a shame that I didn’t learn about Mendez v. Westminster until I got to college. I went to a California school and learned about civil rights and school desegregation. Perhaps this case was not in my history books because it was much more limited in scope than Brown v. Board and civil rights are frequently viewed as a black and white issue.

Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez (pictured above), wants to make the case more well known and continue the work that her father began. She wants teachers to teach this alongside Brown v. Board in discussions on civil rights and desegregation.

‘The equal protection of the laws’ pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, text books and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage. (from Judge McCormick’s opinion)

Additional sources:


11 thoughts on “Mendez v. Westminster

  1. It also didn’t learn about this case until I was in college. See, la Raza has done much to change the status quo…I think that is something that is easily forgotten. Great post!

  2. This is so weird – I just read this blog yesterday and don’t remember learning or hearing about this at all during my teacher prep classes OR any CLAD or SB395 classes. However, last night, I started a book about a Charter School that opened up in San Jose. One of the teachers at this school discusses this case with her high school students to make sure that they are well informed.

  3. cindylu,

    thanks for posting about mendez v. westminster! it really was a landmark case in terms of mexican american education, but we hardly hear anything about it. the process of racial integration for mexican americans from the 1960s onward is so interesting and complicated. sadly, the town where i did my field work did not desegregate their schools until 1972!!!!

    thanks for highlighting this case.

  4. Hmm, I hadn’t heard about this one. The one I always heard about was the Lemon Grove incident. Thanks for the info. I’ll certainly be sharing this with my students.

  5. There was a similar case for Asians. Justice Harlan in his dissent to Plessy v. Ferguson didn’t explicitly state that separate is never equal but his incredulity of the idea was clear when he coined the term “separate but equal”. It’s important to remember that people knew segregation was wrong even that far back.

  6. thanks. where do you find the time to create such ellaborate posts?

    i’m reading Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California.” My students are suprised to learn that Mexicans were considered legally white, and so entitled for citizenship. but then they learn that if you were poor and dark skin, you were discriminated against.

  7. It was never mentioned by my father William Guzman Jr. who was THEE child who was discriminated against in Santa Ana, i give honor to my late Grandfather William Guzman Sr. and to my Dad william (Bill) Guzman Jr. both who are deceased now, may this honorable memory live on, i thinkwe need a national recognition day for these men who stood up for their families.

    Tracie Guzman
    Garden GRove, Ca.

  8. Cool post! I remember when the daughter of the couple came to present on the topic at my mex-edu/Chicano studies class at ookla. She was accompanied by a younger relative that was completing a graduate degree at the time. I had never heard of the case before that day. It made me feel a sense of pride and gratitude. However, towards the end of that presentation the woman made some disparaging comments about today’s Latino immigration and their largely undocumented status questioning their right to stay in this country. It was a sour end to such a great example of leadership and source of pride for today’s Latino community.

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